Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

5.9 Ethical reasoning

Now Ned's got three things. He's got the money that is presumably ‘good’. He's got his defence policy, which he thinks is ‘good’. Ros then introduces the well-being of the community. They are all ‘goods’ but each pulls in a different direction. Any judgement that Ned makes has to be based on an aggregation of these things. But, of course, these are quite different kinds of things, they are incommensurate, so adding up these things is not a straightforward proposition. Ros is hoping that Ned's decision would be pushed in her direction once she adds the idea of the community benefit that, perhaps, Ned had neglected. She is hoping that argument will draw him towards her view of things. But, of course, that does not work either. As a consequence, Ros has to introduce more things to try and bias the argument in her direction.

Ros is trying to persuade Ned and the various things that she brings to bear, which are all of a different kind, but somehow or other they have got to be ‘weighed up’. So what does she do? We've got the money, Ned's defence policy, the well-being of the community, all of these are ingredients of the ethical case. Ros accuses Ned of being selfish, and that might be considered ‘bad’ simply because selfishness is something that community traditions present as being ‘bad’, a ‘bad’ trait. So Ros is hoping that ‘selfishness’ is an element in Ned's final vocabulary, which turns out to be the case as he agrees this is ‘bad’. Interestingly, Ros is actually not that convinced herself. Seeing as Ned is certainly unmoved, she goes on to elaborate by talking about responsibilities: Ned's responsibilities to his colleagues, his family and to himself.

We've now got a new ethical component: responsibility. But does ‘responsibility’ persuade people? Is it an unalloyed ‘good’? Ethicists tend to talk about ‘duty’ rather than ‘responsibility’, but the notions are related. Actually, these are quite similar to ‘rights’. First of all, ‘responsibility’ or ‘duty’ couples relationships and actions. There is some relationship, and, if there is a ‘duty’, then some action is to take place amongst the people in that relationship. ‘Responsibility’ is about ‘right’ actions, about ‘good’ outcomes performed, of course, in the context of a specific relationship. One of the things about ‘duties’ and ‘responsibilities’ is that they often involve effort, that is, they are a bit of a burden. By carrying out the ‘responsibility’ the person who is performing the duty will carry the burden, but the benefit goes to others. So it is tough carrying out a responsibility because you carry the burden for which someone else benefits. It is a similar case with ‘duty’.

Because they are tough and someone else benefits, of course, ‘responsibilities’ and ‘duties’ are quite often evaded. To encourage people to carry out their ‘responsibilities’ and ‘duties’, we often pat them on the back, give explicit approval when they have carried out their ‘duty’ or ‘responsibilities’. That ‘pat on the back’ can be something that is quite informal, a simple word of gratitude, or it could be something more formal like awarding a medal for carrying out a duty, perhaps a particularly painful duty.

Moore talks about ‘duties’ (Principia Ethica, Chapter V, §89) and says that, actually, some of these things are not really related with ethics. The fact that something may be a bit of a burden might not affect the overall ‘good’. If you carry out the ‘duty’ and ‘good’ accrues to somebody, overall, the world might be a better place. The fact that it is a burden does not necessarily mean that it is something to be avoided. The business about evading may mean that the world is a worse place. But somehow or other it's not quite got the same emphasis as the ‘good’ outcome. What G.E. Moore does is that he equates ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty’ with ‘expediency’ in saying that expediency produces a ‘good’ outcome too. The only difference is that people willingly enter into something that is expedient, whereas perhaps they are a bit reluctant regarding ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty’. From a broad ethical point of view, ‘duty’ and ‘expediency’ both imply actions that deliver ‘good’ outcomes. Of course, ‘rights’ are the other side of the coin of ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ because the person benefiting from the ‘rights’ expects others to bear their ‘responsibilities’. But there is nothing particularly special or unique about ‘responsibilities’ and ‘duties’ except that they can be a bit of a chore for some people.

So when Ros says that Ned must carry out his responsibilities, it is not so much that it's labelled a responsibility that counts, but what is it that she thinks is a responsibility. But, again, that does not persuade Ned. She actually makes a personal appeal and talks about the disruption to her way of life if Ned does not sign, so he's got to accept his responsibilities and, if he does not, her way of life will suffer. Interestingly, she equates her life with those of normal people, implying that, if Ned does not sign, then her life will become abnormal, unnatural, possibly unhealthy, and he will be responsible. The words ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ do not carry much ethical weight, really. Moore actually says that we must not be frightened by the assertion that a thing is ‘natural’ into the admission that it is ‘good’ (Principia Ethica, Chapter I, §12). ‘Good’ does not, by definition, mean anything that is ‘natural’ and it is, therefore, always an open question.

In short, Ros’ argument is very much about persuading Ned that he is responsible to other people. It's a moral persuasion to the benefit of everyone else but him, really, at this point, because if he does get his way he will be gratified by having his idea materialised. So it is all on his side. Since he is not interested in money, she has to bring to bear a much bigger picture, something like an attack on his selfishness, if you like. Ned's arguments are really quite abstract, but Ros’ are very much down-to-earth and practical. But I guess Ned has not quite seen that yet. So we've got Ros talking about ‘normal’ people even though ‘normal’ doesn’t necessarily imply ‘good’. Ros is hoping the implication that she will be forced out of a ‘normal’ life will be taken to be part of a final vocabulary where ‘normal’ life is equated with ‘good’. She is, of course, hoping that Ned will share that vocabulary.


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